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Embiid continues to impress

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 8:35 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 7:11 a.m.

Photos

No. 12 Baylor at No. 15 Kansas

PBaylorHt.Yr.PtsReb
CIsaiah Austin7-1So.10.45.7
FCory Jefferson6-9Jr.13.18.4
FRoyce O’Neale6-6Jr.6.13.7
GGary Franklin6-2Sr.6.61.6
G Kenny Chery5-11Jr.11.92.3
Kansas
CJoel Embiid7-0Fr.11.07.6
FPerry Ellis6-8So.12.96.5
GAndrew Wiggins6-8Fr.15.16.0
GWayne Selden6-5Fr.10.02.8
G Naadir Tharpe5-11Jr.9.82.4

Baylor (13-4, 1-3 Big 12): Baylor should be in line for a tumble in the rankings on Monday after starting 1-3 in the Big 12, including two losses this past week. Baylor lost at Texas Tech and then suffered a home loss to Oklahoma on Saturday. Now the Bears enter Allen Fieldhouse, a place where the program has never won. Baylor is 4-19 all-time against Kansas and 0-11 in Lawrence, but the Bears have won two of three in the series, including a victory over KU last year in Waco. On Saturday, Baylor sophomore center Isaiah Austin revealed in an ESPN television interview that he was blind in his right eye due to a torn retina he suffered while playing youth basketball. Austin, who is averaging 10.4 points, then had 12 points while hitting two three-pointers against Oklahoma. Baylor freshman Ish Wainright, a Kansas City native, is averaging 12 minutes per game off the bench.

Kansas (13-4, 4-0): The Jayhawks will finish out one of their toughest stretches in years when they face Baylor on Monday night. Entering Sunday, Baylor was ranked No. 44 in KenPom.com’s computer rankings, meaning Kansas will have played a team ranked in the top 68 of KenPom’s rankings for the 11th straight game. The stretch has included Florida (No. 17 in KenPom), San Diego State (No. 21), Iowa State (No. 19) and then Oklahoma State (No. 12). To put it one way: KU has played an NCAA tourney caliber team for 10 straight games. After some early setbacks, KU has found itself while starting 4-0 in the Big 12. Another victory would keep Kansas in sole possession of first place in the Big 12. But Bill Self doesn’t want to think too far ahead. “It’s like being ahead in baseball after the second inning,” Self said. “It doesn’t matter right now.”

RPIs as of Sunday: Baylor 24, KU 1

No. 12 Baylor at No. 15 Kansas

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence

Records: Baylor 13-4, 1-3 Big 12; KU 13-4, 4-0

Radio: KFH 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

TV: ESPN

— The question keeps coming for Kansas coach Bill Self, almost daily at this point. It came after his precocious freshman center overwhelmed New Mexico inside the Sprint Center in early December. It came after a road victory against Iowa State. It came again on Saturday, after Joel Embiid had assaulted Oklahoma State’s frontcourt with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks, a near triple-double in his 17th college game.

Did you really think Joel Embiid could be this good this fast?

To answer this question, Self tells a story from last summer, in the days after Embiid had arrived on campus. Embiid, a 7-foot specimen, was blessed with the coordination of a kid who had grown up playing soccer in Cameroon. But he had played just two years of organized basketball since arriving in America, and the outside world had little idea what to make of him. He was a mouth-watering talent, but was he a project?

In some ways, Self was still learning about Embiid as well. But during one of their first conversations in Lawrence, Self told Embiid what he expected.

“You’re going to be the No. 1 pick,” Self told Embiid. “Now, it may not be this year, but you will be a No. 1 pick.”

Self, of course, wasn’t necessarily thinking about the 2014 NBA Draft. He, too, suspected that Embiid would need time. But when the kid got it, there was no telling how good he could be.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about Embiid during his freshman season, it’s the foolhardy nature of putting limits on his growth and potential. Freshman centers who have played two years of organized basketball are not supposed to be this dominant. They’re not supposed to be averaging 11.0 points, eight rebounds and three blocks while playing just 23 minutes per game.

Joel Embiid was not supposed to be Kansas’ most irreplaceable player.

But as the 15th ranked Jayhawks prepare to play host to No. 12 Baylor at 8 p.m. on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, that’s exactly what Embiid has become.

“I don’t think it should come as a surprise to him,” Self said. “Because he’s been told all along he’s capable of doing this.”

Embiid’s name is now atop many NBA Draft boards.

“I think he’s aware,” Self said. “He’s very, very bright. But I don’t think he’s caught up in what the world says.”

While his offensive skillset is advanced for a raw 7-footer, Embiid has begun to make his biggest impact on the defensive end. He had a career-high eight blocks in a victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday, and his presence was partially responsible for holding preseason Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart to a 3-for-14 shooting night.

“Every game I have the same mindset,” Embiid says. “I try to alter every shot or block it. So I think I was lucky, and I got a few blocks.”

Embiid’s transformation into a bona fide rim-protector has helped tighten up a defense that has yet to measure up to some Kansas defenses of recent vintage. But for Self, it’s just another example of Embiid’s capacity to grow.

“Joel is one of the few kids that actually sees things objectively about himself,” Self said. “We can't be objective about your own children; that's impossible. But he's actually objective about himself and where he is.”

For now, Embiid’s rise means Self must face a classic college basketball quandary. The better Embiid plays, the more likely he could be gone after this season. Self hasn’t downplayed Embiid’s NBA ceiling but he’s quick to point out that he’s just starting to figure things out.

The question keeps coming: Did anyone think Embiid could be this good this year? For Self, the answer is always close to the same: Actually, yes.

“(Joel) can study himself and be like, ‘You know what? I should be doing this or I should be doing that,’” Self says. “So I don't think his play would surprise himself at all. If anything I think he would say, ‘Well, just wait, I can do a lot more.’”

Reach Rustin Dodd at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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